A pizza chain that has become a local favourite in Dundee after making the Scottish city its first UK site believes its ultimate target of 60 branches is well within its reach given the early favourable reaction to the concept. FEJ explores the equipment at the heart of its plans to bring something different to the casual dining market.
Project Pie purports to offer a refreshingly contemporary twist on pizza-making, but its concept is by no means a leap in the dark for a company with some grand plans for the UK foodservice market.
The notion of producing fresh, tasty pizzas in a matter of minutes — which lies at the heart of its offering — is actually taken from across the pond, where it has gone from strength to strength since it was formed by owner James Markham. His vision for a fast casual, custom pizza chain came about through his own frustration at either being served bad pizza or having to pay through the nose for premium options.
In Dundee at least, where the regeneration of the city and sizeable student population proved a major attraction to the chain, the focus is heavily geared towards the 18-24-year-old crowd, who regard the prospect of being able to choose exactly what goes on their pizzas as something quite novel.
Operations manager, Chantel Nell, says that the success of the model in the US gives the company every confidence that it will take off just as well this side of the pond. One of the factors stacked in its favour is that from an operational point of view the concept is relatively uncomplicated.
Even during the most demanding periods of service it has easily been able to cope with up to 10 pizzas in the oven at once”
“Project Pie offers everybody artisan pizzas, custom-built, cooked in front of the customer in minutes,” she says. “Starting from the pizza base, made in store daily, the customer then chooses from a number of toppings, sauces and cheeses, before being cooked in our stone pizza oven. Each pizza is cooked in minutes and customers have the option to eat in our purposefully relaxed and informal restaurant or take away to enjoy on the go or at home.”
With expectations of cooking more than 500 pizzas on the busiest days and opening hours of 11am-10pm five days a week and an extra hour on top of that for the other two days, Project Pie’s first task was to source an oven that was not only able to efficiently produce pizzas in large quantities but provide an element of theatre to boot.
Nell says her main priority was the capacity of the oven, simply because of the influx of customers it anticipated. “Initial research told us that we had the potential to become a favourite for many of the students and young adults living in the city. With this in mind we needed to make sure we had sufficient capacity in the oven, not only to be able to produce multiple pizzas simultaneously, but to an exceptional standard.”
Having taken a lead from the chain’s American counterparts, as well as conducting its own separate research into the types of pizza equipment available on the market, Nell settled on the Wood Stone Fire Deck series.
“With its outstanding capacity and its mesmerising display, including three flame jets, we were confident that the oven would be able to efficiently cope with the demand we required,” she explains.
Project Pie, which is run as a franchise in the UK by John Cananvan, worked closely with Wood Stone’s UK distributor Jestic on the specification and installation, with the company keeping it updated on the progress of the order as it waited for it to be shipped to the UK. Once in place and commissioned, the rest of the kitchen was built around the new oven, reinforcing its position as the centrepiece of the food preparation area.
It has been a case of ‘so far, so good’ for the firm, with an incredible 520 pizzas served in one shift alone. Unsurprisingly, Friday and Saturday evenings are when the equipment takes its biggest hammering. “The Wood Stone oven has been really impressive, even during the most demanding periods of service, easily coping with up to 10 pizzas in the oven at once,” says Nell.
The oven’s variable temperature settings, meanwhile, ensure the chain is able to control the heat in the chamber to suit the capacity, while the digital temperature display on the front of the oven has proved to be something of a talking point for customers amazed at just how hot the chamber gets.
Project Pie’s plans to open an average of six stores a year for the next 10 years underscores its ambition. And with every store that opens, its tagline of ‘Everyday artisan pizza, custom built by you’ hinges on harnessing the power of the stone hearth oven.
One of the unique aspects of the Wood Stone Fire Deck is that it has three banks of flames within the oven chamber, one at either side and one at the back.
The flames at either side are used for the cooking process, while the flames at the back of the oven provide a visual backdrop to the appliance.
“Our customers are fascinated by the process, often standing to watch their pizza cooking and admire the hard work and dedication of our team,” says Project Pie’s operations manager Chantal Nell. “It’s not just the visual effect of the oven either. The authentic stone base and variable temperature means the pizzas cook quickly but evenly, resulting in a delicious, thin, crispy base and a wonderful, uniform colour.”